Review: Letters/X (Apollo Theater Chicago)

     
     

‘Anti-Valentine’s cabaret’ comes on too strong, but not without laughs

  
  

Bergen Anderson, Jessica Jane Childs, Matthew Isler, Tom McGrath, and Anthony Roberts in 'Letters/X' at Apollo Studio Theater in Chicago.

    
Apollo Theater presents
  
Letters/X
  
Adapted by Anthony Roberts
Directed by
Matthew Zaradich
at
Apollo Theater, 2540 N. Lincoln (map)
through March 12  | 
tickets: $10-$12  |  more info

Reviewed by Dan Jakes

Only in the emotional vacuum of a break-up does it seem like a good idea to e-mail unsolicited diary entries to your married ex-boyfriend.

So goes one hilarious story of dejection in Letters/X, Chicago’s annual cabaret devoted to performing real-life exchanges about love gone sour. Currently in its eighth incarnation, the Shadenfreude slam is currently performing its first run in its new venue at the cozy, well-suited Apollo Studio Theater.

Dressed mostly in V-Day red, white and black, The young five-person ensemble (Bergen Anderson, Jessica Jane Childs, Matthew Isler, Tom McGrath, Anthony Roberts) presents submitted texts as monologues and songs by adaptor Anthony Roberts with direction by Matthew Zaradich.

You can’t ask for better inspiration. Break-up letters are a special brew of bad ideas, written by the emotionally compromised for reasons beyond their better sensibilities. And–surely to Letters/X‘s mirth–the emergence of text messages and Facebook posts as forms of legitimate romantic communication have only grown the broken heart rant supply. After all, unlike their handwritten counterparts, those digital venting-outlets share a brand of immediacy that outperform the body’s rate of metabolizing the alcohol that usually provokes angsty letter-writing in the first place.

Sometimes the performed letters aren’t break-up notes at all, but instead love propositions that are so bad they accomplish the same task. It all makes for superb material for cathartic, cringe-worthy comedy.

When the creative team here trusts that material, it does.

Too often, though, it seems like they feel the need to heighten it. These comedians have talent, but for some reason it gets veiled behind loud, cartoonish facades–never so much so to wholly smother the risible material, but just enough to become grating (the ladies are a little less guilty than the gents). A crank-it-to-eleven style may play well in a 1,000-person proscenium, but the Apollo Studio seats about 50. When good jokes are performed at you instead of to you, they feel less funny as a result.

Fortunately, there are segments where the comics subdue their inner-Screech and relax, bringing out the sensitivity and irony of the monologues. In response, the laughs become easier and more genuine.

The songs too are hit and miss. Numbers like “Psycho Hose Beast” don’t offer much more than their title, but others like “Brokenhearted Anthem” are surprisingly sweet and catchy. The music interludes help keep the pace brisk and the action engaging.

Conceptually, Letters/X is gold, and I hope it remains a Chicago institution–albeit a better tweaked one. This year’s presentation is a satisfying if warbly song for the newly single. 

  
  
Rating: ★★½
  
  

Bergen Anderson, Jessica Jane Childs, Matthew Isler, Tom McGrath, and Anthony Roberts in 'Letters/X' at Apollo Studio Theater in Chicago.

Ensemble: Bergen Anderson, Jessica Jane Childs, Matthew Isler, Tom McGrath, and Anthony Roberts.   

Production: Jessica Jane Childs (producer), Stephanie Clark (stage manager), Anthony Roberts (producer/adaptor & composer), Jessica Roberts (lighting design), Matthew Zaradich (producer/director).

  
  

REVIEW: Ghostbox (InFusion Theatre Company)

 

Where Bergman dared to tread

 

 

Ghostbox (1) - Photo by Kevin Viol

    
InFusion Theatre presents
    
Ghostbox
   
Written by Randall Colburn
Directed by Mitch Golob
Apollo Theater Studio, 2540 N. Lincoln (map)
through October 31  |  tickets: $12-$20  |  more info 

Reviewed by K.D. Hopkins

I have to give credit to InFusion Theatre Company for stepping out of the usual experimental game with Ghostbox. Randall Colburn has taken more than a page from one of my favorite directors and made it work by means of multimedia. The one-act play opens with Wife, played by Victoria Gilbert, demonstrating how a simple transistor radio can pick up supernatural signals. The film is shot in a grainy 1970’s patina of de-saturated color. It has an eerie feel and sets the mood for what comes next. The actual stage is painted in washed out gray tones with the screen set center stage. The actors are dressed in gray scale colors as well, with the exception of the Shadow that looms ominously.

Ghostbox is reminiscent of two of Bergman’s masterpieces: “Through a Glass Darkly” and “The Seventh Seal”. Victoria Gilbert’s dialogue would seem repetitive in the hands of a less emotive actor. As Wife, she portrays the agony of loss and the psychology that lies beneath. Colburn’s dialogue reaches into the exotic territory of Reykjavik as the beginning of the love story of Husband and Wife. Husband spoke of Reykjavik as if it were the Promised Land where their love would be perfect. Wife reveals that he kept his deep melancholy and sexual dysfunction a secret.

Ghostbox (7) - Photo by Nastassia JimenezThe characters are kept from connecting and roam a wasteland of radio signals and flashbacks on film. This is indeed a thriller, but thankfully not in the obvious slasher mode. There are no winks at the audience in Ghostbox. This play grabs, releases, and toys with the subconscious. The images of water suggest drowning versus cleansing and purity. Even the scenes of Gilbert standing in a field of solid green are ominous and somehow stark.

Kevin Crispin plays the role of Husband. He bears a stricken hollowed visage that harkens back to German Expressionism films as well as the man playing chess with Death in “The Seventh Seal”. It’s a mystery – is Husband trying to avoid Wife in this murky place that they roam or is he keeping clear because of Shadow.

Ghostbox makes excellent use of sound (sound design by Claudette Perez) with jagged piercing radio signals that cause a few gasps in the audience, adding another layer for the characters to navigate in this nebulous place. I had visions of the old ‘Radio Free Europe’ commercials that called for open radio signals behind what was called the Iron Curtain. I was back in my seven year old psyche and recalling the terror I felt for the people who couldn’t just turn on the radio for pleasure as well as the pain and the smell of what I imagined was a real iron curtain. With Ghostbox, Colburn has created an onomatopoeia of vision and sound that projects a stark and frozen hell. When Gilbert and Crispin are together on the stage the action is taut, feeling as if glass is breaking everywhere without hearing the sounds. Gilbert goes from stricken and grieving to anger – anger at being denied love and sexuality. Crispin treads a tightrope of emotion as it is slowly revealed where they are and how they got there.

If Ghostbox were a film it would be in black and white. Director Mitch Golob keeps the scenes tight and efficient as if he were a film auteur. The suffering of humankind is said to be universal, but how it is expressed varies. It’s a refreshing experience to see a theatre production that does not go for the obvious but definitely hits the jugular. (A strange contrast to see the folks in line for Million Dollar Quartet in the main theatre.) It is a shot of surreal Technicolor and then an Icelandic blast downstairs in the Apollo Studio. Ghostbox is marketed for Halloween entertainment and it will hit the spot. Sleep well children…

   
   
Rating: ★★★½
   
  

Ghostbox (5) - Photo by Nastassia Jimenez

InFusion Theatre Company presents Ghostbox at the Apollo Studio on Thursdays through Saturdays with a special Halloween Performance on October 31st at 8:30 pm. The Apollo Studio Theater is located at 2540 N. Lincoln. Call 773-935-6100 or www.ticketmaster.com

 

   
   

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